Welcome to part two of this two-post series on piano teaching taboos.
I have come up with eight piano teaching taboos that I think need to be addressed. In case you missed the first post, where I wrote about the first four taboos, click here to read it before continuing on with this post.
This is a tricky one because there are several different reasons it might occur and as professionals, we need to be clear what that reason is before we decide how to handle it.
A character clash – There is only one professional solution to this, be empathetic, focus on the positive and let the music do the rest. It is the responsibility of the teacher to adapt and take the first step towards a good working relationship, providing the student behaves appropriately.
The student who is having a hard time – This is always an emotionally draining situation. There is no one right answer. I like to believe that in this situation, 1-2-1 lessons can be a real positive for the student. It is always worthwhile keeping an open dialogue with parents. Ask for updates on how they think lessons can help, offer some flexibility and know what your limit is. You are, after all, just the piano teacher.
Teaching a student who doesn’t want to be there – I have done this, it was exhausting, more than exhausting, but I persisted. I was fooled because between parents forcing practice time and a dedicated teacher, improvement does happen. I waited a long time to turn the corner, in the end the corner that was turned was by me, when I realised you can’t teach someone once they have decided they don’t want to learn. They will give the bare minimum, so you might be tempted to keep going but really the best thing to do is to end it professionally. Take the opportunity to shape your studio and fill the place with a student who will gain more from your time.
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I have done all I can, they clearly don’t want to learn. I am drained by the repeated lessons and mistakes. I think it is best they give up. How on earth do I say this to a parent and child?
When I taught in schools the turnover of pupils was faster; children moved through the years and left the school. In the case of the student who never practised and wasn’t really interested this was a natural stopping point and saved me having to suggest cessation of lessons. Now I teach privately, it is much harder working out these situations. They need tact, communication and a good amount of resolve.
To help in this regard I advise having a few processes in place.
I take all new students on a one-year trial basis. This is because it takes time and discipline to learn piano. It is not just another club like swimming. If your child does not set up a regular practice habit from the start, it is going to be very hard for them to develop it later. The practice commitment I need from you at this age is …mins …times a week. This is regardless of whether your child is taking exams for learning for pleasure, playing classical, jazz or pop. Your child will need support from both you and I as they make space for piano in their life. After one year if your child has developed a healthy practice routine we will know they are ready to benefit from lessons, in this case, I suggest we continue. After one year you also have the option to end lessons without the usual notice period.
Incidentally, since introducing this, I have never had to stop lessons after the one-year period. It seems just talking about it is enough to get the message across.
Oh, but she loves her lessons and she loves music, she just doesn’t really like practising.
From my experience, some teachers find it easier than others to end lessons at this point. If, like me, you find it hard, this might help.
Offer time off – Half a term without lessons to set everything back to neutral.
Resume lessons – If parent and student are still keen then resume lessons, everyone will feel refreshed after the break. This is a good time to start a practice timetable with the support of parents to make sure a new practice habit is nurtured. Hopefully, this works. However, plan to reassess after a set period.
We all did all we could – If you don’t see the change you had hoped for, it is easier now to explain that everyone has done all they can. Being part of the process means parents and students will not be shocked and have had more than a fair chance to turn things around. It is nice to add, “What is already learnt makes a good foundation should they choose to pursue lessons later in life.”
I don’t actually use the word give-up, it is so negative. I focus on having time to try other hobbies with the option to play for fun without lessons and return to piano later.
This is an area that I think would benefit from further discussion.
We would love to know your thoughts on it. Is there room in private music tuition for a system whereby after many years with one teacher advanced students become part of some temporary student exchange programme? What are the benefits, what are the drawbacks? I have enjoyed experiencing the teaching of different teachers throughout my professional career and have learnt something different from all of them. How might this work, or not, for an advanced student?
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Teaching can be very tiring, there is a lot of giving involved.
It is not as easy as people imagine it is having your passion as your job. It is not always the dream scenario. If you are reading this, you have already found a great resource of fresh ideas for lessons and a place for support. But let’s not mistake that for nourishing your own musical needs. Attending concerts and masterclasses, practising your own choice pieces and having a non-musical hobby are all more than helpful – they are healthy. It is also the best way to keep a balance in your teaching practice and to keep the music alive. Set time aside for yourself.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed, a small search on the internet will reveal thousands of musicians and all their achievements and projects.
However, you are the one showing up each week for your student and working on their behalf and this means, regardless of experience or qualifications, you are the best person for the job and your student is lucky to have you.
For me, self-doubt is the most harmful taboo. It puts teachers in a situation where they can be influenced by parents who think they know better. This will invariably be a negative experience because parents don’t know better, so outcomes will be compromised, and a vicious circle develops breading more self-doubt.
Be professional, be confident in your abilities but be open to learning from experiences and seeking advice from another teacher if necessary.
You are the best teacher for your student right now.
Your life as a teacher begins the day you realise that you are always a learner. Robert John Meehan
Do you sometimes feel like an imposter piano teacher? That you don’t always belong? Make sure you listen to this podcast on how to combat these feelings.
Amateur to Professional
There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well. Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
In my mentoring work, these taboo topics come up in discussions as regularly as teaching technique. Just as there are countless different interpretations for a single Beethoven sonata, there are countless different ways for a teacher to teach and nurture a young musician.
However, they all stem from a good working relationship based on respect. How we engage with parents and students will ultimately impact how they engage with us.
It is important to consciously shape your teaching practice, to develop it as you wish it to be developed. If you don’t, you will find yourself running to the tune of the students and parents you teach. Your students and your teaching practice will thrive when you are thriving!
I – Intent keep music and musical playing at the forefront
N – Nurture yourself as well as your students and know your limit
S – Shape your studio in your way
P – Practise professionalism but remember the power of humour in teaching
I – Intrigue, where possible, ask questions rather than give answers
R – Reflect and research; we are always learning
E – Enlighten through empowering, engaging, facilitating, observing and inspiring
Teachers who inspire realise there will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones, it all depends on how we use them.
I hope you enjoyed these two blog posts on piano teaching taboos.
Are there any piano teaching taboos I missed? Let me know what yours are in the comments section below.
Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and talk openly about piano teaching taboos – it is the best way to overcome any isssues you might be having in your studio.
I am a piano teacher, mentor and writer based in Surrey, UK. I am also author of the "highly recommended" Music, Me, Piano Practice Resources. My students cover a wide range of ages and abilities; there is something new to be learnt from each of them. I love finding unique ways of inspiring each musician I meet and sharing ideas with others. You can visit me at my website by clicking here.